Have you ever cared for a child with autism? If you haven’t, you likely will – as autism affects 1 in every 110 children in North America. Working for a family living life on the autism spectrum will be one of the best things you will ever do for our global village, and for yourself. Here are a few tips as to how to take this journey with an open heart and an active mind:
One of the traps many we all fall into with kids with special needs is to talk at them incessantly, yet non-verbal communication is actually the most powerful way to engage most kids. Instead of firing lots of questions, come and sit close by. Smile. Make an observational statement in a calm, even tone. If the child needs something from you, pause ever so slightly and engage them with your facial expression before you give them an answer. They will learn to look to you for guidance and trust.
Many people (I was guilty of this myself for a long, long time) feel the need to flit around kids with autism and entertain them. But if you really think about it, that is your own agenda. You’re looking for your own feedback in this scenario. To make a real connection with these incredible kids, take the more vulnerable and open-hearted approach. Let them vibe off of you and collaborate on any given moment.
Take an interest in their special interest:
Many kids on the spectrum find deep grounding in a special interests. This may be the place where they feel safe and calm; a decompressing force in their day. Without being invasive or pushy, there are lots of ways to have a quiet knowledge of this special interest, like memorizing all of the poisonous animals in the Amazon rainforest or having a running list of all of the subway stops in Paris. It’s a way of declaring to the child that you “get them” and want to see the world through their eyes. Always check in with your employer about how far they want you to go, but have that knowledge to pull out of your bag of tricks whenever you need it.
If you have taken a job as the caregiver to a special needs child, you have agreed to become a part of a very special family. Layered, complex relationships, siblings with different needs, parents sometimes in pain, and always challenged beyond their wildest dreams; an unusual job descriptions may all be part of the package.
There is no room for judgement in this ever-changing space.
If you start with the thinking and respect that you have no idea what its like to be living this life 24/7 and let a mutual trust and respect build from there, it will be an experience that will open your mind and your heart forever.
Communication, communication, communication.
Needs change quickly in a household with autism. You have to approach it with flexible thinking and compassion. Its best for everyone to set up a monthly meeting to check in with how your job may change from month to month instead of always adding to the list of things that need to be done.
Sara Winter is a mom of two boys and the founder of Squag.com, a new application for kids on the autism spectrum to connect with one another.